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July 2, 2004

New Plant Sciences Institute research targets Iowa ag issues

by Teddi Barron

The Plant Sciences Institute will redirect more than $3 million to fast track research that enhances the value of Iowa crops and targets specific challenges facing Iowa agriculture.

The research goals include identifying the molecular mechanism involved in soybean rust fungus and developing plants that helps reduce the risk in humans of type II diabetes.

Over the next three years, the institute will draw upon researchers' existing strengths in genomics, bioinformatics, plant metabolism and molecular breeding to work on five research initiatives (plant genomes, plant biofactories, nutrition, biorenewables and crop protection).

'Push the envelope' of plant sciences

"The research initiatives are a new way of doing business at the institute. They are intended to 'push the envelope' of plant sciences research at Iowa State," said Stephen Howell, institute director.

Each initiative includes more than one project. Interdisciplinary research teams of faculty, staff and students will be created expressly to tackle each project.

Research teams will:

  • Develop plant oils for use as biobased products and bioenergy
  • Develop a plant that helps reduce the risk of obesity and type II diabetes
  • Identify the molecular mechanisms involved in soybean rust fungus, and those in soybeans that successfully fight the disease
  • Identify the molecular mechanisms responsible for hybrid vigor (heterosis), one of the most important components of production in corn
  • Develop a method for high-level production of biopharmaceuticals in plants
  • Develop improved process technologies for extraction and separation of biopharmaceuticals

"Directors of the centers in the institute identified research areas that make efficient and focused use of our resources and, at the same time, have the potential of transforming the agricultural economy of Iowa," Howell said. "The initiatives address one or both major component of crop value -- grain quality and production."

The five research initiatives

  • Plant genomes: Institute scientists will use large-scale gene expression profiling technologies to scan whole plant genomes for new genes that may improve things such as plant nutrition, tolerance to stress or resistance to pests.
  • Plant biofactories: Scientists will address technical, safety and regulatory issues that limit plant-made pharmaceutical production in Iowa. Research projects will address novel plant expression systems, efficient methods to extractand purify biopharmaceuticals, and better field confinement of plants and plant pollens.
  • Nutrition: Researchers will work to enhance the nutritional value of plant products in food and feed, for example, soybean oil and protein. They also aim to develop foods such as slow sugar-release starch that combats obesity and type II diabetes.
  • Biorenewables: Institute scientists will tailor feedstocks for biobased products and bioenergy production; develop (with faculty from Iowa State's bioeconomy initiative) soybean oils that will work well as fuels and lubricants; develop woody materials that convert more easily to fermentable feedstocks; and study alternative crops, such as perennial grasses, for biomass production.
  • Crop protection: Researchers will develop crops that resist disease and pests. Initially, they will focus on soybean rust, an emerging disease with the potential for devastating damage. They will examine the molecular interaction between soybeans and the rust fungus, with the long-term goal of generating an effective control.


"Directors of the centers in the institute identified research areas that make efficient and focused use of our resources and, at the same time, have the potential of transforming the agricultural economy of Iowa."

Stephen Howell